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One small perk of the coronavirus outbreak: Faster airplane Wi-Fi

Fewer people on board means less competition for bandwidth. And once travel gets back to normal, the future might offer faster Wi-Fi service, for free.

One small perk of the coronavirus outbreak: Faster airplane Wi-Fi
[Photo: Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash]

Reading this on a plane could be significantly less rage-inducing—if some upgrades to inflight Wi-Fi fulfill their promises of cheaper, faster, and more robust connectivity.

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But even if they don’t, you’ll probably find it more pleasant this year because of something the airlines can’t control: how many people ground themselves to avoid the novel coronavirus.

Less competition

Right here in 2020, inflight Wi-Fi will probably feel a lot zippier just because you’ll have fewer people using it. As coronavirus fears lead to more canceled events, foregone trips, and emptier planes, those left on board will have more bandwidth to enjoy.

The airlines, however, won’t enjoy the experience as much, as multiple industry executives noted at a just-concluded aviation summit.

“A lot of people are just staying home,” said Indigo Partners founder William Franke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Aviation Summit in Washington last week. Franke’ s private-equity firm owns a controlling interest in Frontier Airlines and has stakes in other carriers overseas. He sees revenue shortfalls of 20 to 25% for U.S. airlines.

Other airline executives also acknowledged difficult times at the conference. “We have reduced our schedule to a number of international markets—not because of safety, entirely because of demand,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said. (American’s pilot union also instructed crews to refuse to operate flights to China.) “The demand drops off to a point where it doesn’t make sense to fly the airplane there and back.”

“There is a lot of anxiety,” said Alaska Airlines CEO Bradley Tilden before noting what he called a recent outbreak of “some booking softness.”

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Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was more direct in noting that the Dallas carrier had just warned investors that it expected its first-quarter revenue to drop by $200 million to $300 million: “A couple hundred million dollars in one quarter—which, when you think about it, is really one month—yeah, it gets your attention.”

Make it snappier

Longer term, in-flight Wi-Fi should benefit from some upgrades better suited to keep up with a plane full of people streaming, browsing, and otherwise sapping bandwidth from their seats.

Almost all airborne connectivity today relies on satellites in geosynchronous orbits that keep them parked above one spot on the Earth’s equator. That allows one satellite to cover a huge expanse, but also imposes a nontrivial lag on every online interaction—each bit of data must take a 44,000-mile round trip from the plane to the satellite and back.

At the Chamber of Commerce event, another executive with an inflight-connectivity firm predicted less-laggy service from satellites in lower orbits.

“Another key breakthrough technology is about bringing satellites closer to the Earth,” said Giuseppe Ferraioli, vice president of aeronautical sales for the Americas at SES. “We have a new constellation that’s going to be launched in two years.”

That Luxembourg-based firm’s seven O3b mPower satellites, to be launched starting in 2021, will provide bandwidth from almost 5,000 miles up.

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Chicago-based Gogo plans to provide service from even closer in, relying on OneWeb’s growing constellation of satellites in 745-mile orbits.

“It’s a snappier experience,” Cobin said Thursday of the service that should launch in one and a half to two years.

Upgrading to these new systems will cost airlines money, but they’ve already shown themselves willing to make such an investment.

“Airlines have already shown a willingness to put up new technology if it means a more functional system,” e-mailed Brett Snyder, an airline analyst who runs the Cranky Flier blog. “Delta and American have both replaced their old air-to-ground systems with satellite offerings.”

A third vendor of satellite connectivity, Viasat, is sticking with its existing geosynchronous-satellite architecture.

“Latency’s not an issue,” said Don Buchman, who runs the commercial aviation business for that Carlsbad, California, firm. “The market’s already said that”—as in, satellite Wi-Fi quickly won out over air-to-ground Wi-Fi with less latency but far less bandwidth.

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Instead, Viasat is emphasizing capacity: Its third generation of satellites, to be launched starting in 2021, will offer one trillion bits per second of bandwidth to a plane, up from 260 billion bits per second from today’s satellites.

Make it free

In the future, you might be happier with the inflight Wi-Fi you get for a reason unrelated to its speed: You might not have to pay for it.

Among U.S. airlines, only JetBlue currently offers Wi-Fi for free. But it should have some company before too long.

“We have multiple customers today that are giving full internet service away for free,” Gogo chief strategy officer Jon Cobin said at the Aviation Summit. “More and more airlines you hear out there [are] very publicly talking about the intention to give the service away for free.”

Delta chief executive officer Ed Bastian, for example, mused about that possibility at the Skift Global Forum travel conference in New York in February, saying free Wi-Fi was the norm in most places on the ground, so the Atlanta-based airline would offer it at some point.

On other airlines, free Wi-Fi exists for certain services beyond the apps and sites of the airlines themselves. Delta and Alaska, for example, allow free use of such messaging apps as WhatsApp inflight, while American Airlines began offering free Apple Music streaming last January.

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Southwest, meanwhile, provides free Wi-Fi to elite A-List Preferred members of its frequent-flyer program. United provides a different sort of no-money-down connectivity: It lets passengers pay with miles instead of dollars. The redemption rate there is bad, but for people without enough miles to get a flight anytime soon, MileagePlus miles can look like a free currency.

Finally, T-Mobile subscribers get an hour of free Gogo connectivity on every domestic flight.

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About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

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